Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Many residents of the Missoula area are familiar with the lands along the lower Blackfoot River, even though they’ve only recently become truly public. But now that they are public lands, and federal lands to boot, the Bureau of Land Management is starting a process to learn how the public would like them managed.

Around 50 people gathered Tuesday afternoon in the Missoula Community Theater Meeting Room to learn what the BLM has in store for about 37,000 acres that it slowly acquired after Champion International and Plum Creek Timber sold off all their lands in the Blackfoot River drainage.

Most recently, the BLM acquired almost 6,600 acres in the Ninemile-Woodchuck area. The last parcels the BLM will buy from The Nature Conservancy are in the Gold Creek and lower Twin Creek areas, bringing the total area to about 60,000 acres.

BLM Missoula Office assistant manager Michael Albritton said the transfers should happen in 2024 and 2025, so the time is fast approaching when the BLM wants a plan for the area.

So the BLM is conducting an Ecosystem Analysis at the Watershed Scale, which allows the agency to look at the entire 123,000 acres of the lower Blackfoot watershed, regardless of land ownership, from the Gold Creek and Twin Creek drainages to Woodchuck Canyon and Highway 200 close to Clearwater Junction. They’ll consider the history of the area, current conditions and trends that might point toward future changes in various uses.

“We’re in a position now where we can look at the whole. Look at this landscape that we steward and think holistically about how do we want to engage with the community and move forward with management of these lands,” said BLM Missoula Office manager Erin Carey. “There’s no project. We don’t have purpose and need or proposed action. Right now, it is ground-floor, and we’re just interested in learning about this landscape and why it’s important to you. What are things we should be taking into consideration? Ultimately, it will lead into project-level planning, but we’re in a listening mode right now.”

Albritton said the BLM has already conducted 50 listening sessions throughout February, talking to individuals and groups that are known to use the Blackfoot watershed for recreation, agriculture, timber production and other land agencies.

They also spoke with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which have treaty rights to use the land and Blackfoot River. There were no specific questions - they just asked people to talk about what was important. Then they put those comments into broad categories: recreation, travel, fish and wildlife, forest management, invasive species, private property and history and culture.

“We probably heard the most about recreation. That does not surprise me. A lot of times what ties us to a piece of land is where we hunt, where we ski, where we bike,” Albritton said.

Albritton, who is also the team lead for the Ecosystem Analysis, had those attending the meeting break into small groups to discuss the categories and ideas that came out of the initial listening sessions. They would be either validating what the BLM already heard or finding where some gaps in the categories might exist.

The BLM staff likely got a wide range of input and opinions. In one small group, one woman wanted to see some of the area restored for wildlife connectivity, not just managed for timber harvest or recreation, while a man was there to see what the BLM was doing because he doesn’t trust the agency. Another woman owns a section of land along Gold Creek and is hoping the BLM might bring some order.

“We have a lot of trouble on Gold Creek Road with people just leaving trash and open fires and they don’t worry about bears. Five years ago, several bears had to be destroyed because they’d become habituated. And logging roads and trucks - for somebody with small children - they’re just coming down that road. It just needs some good oversight but not overreach,” the woman said.

Whether the BLM can find that balance might be evident in the draft situation assessment that should be available for comment in early summer. Then the final Ecosystem Analysis should be published in December.

A second BLM open house will be Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Hellgate Lions Park at 1305 Haaglund Drive in Bonner. For more information, follow this link.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at